Washington, seat of power? Washington is of course the White House and the Capitol, where American policy is made and unmade. Washington is also the showcase of an entire country. An immense green belt (3 km), the Mall, brings together essential commemorative monuments and XXL museums. The Smithsonian Institution alone has 19, all free, each expressing a facet of this highly plural nation. Some visitors plan a good week to get through it. A capital city, in every sense of the word.
Washington, in the shadow of the Capitol
It was the delegates of the first 13 colonies who, after independence, decided on the creation of Washington. The site, upstream from the mouth of the Potomac, offered a good geographical compromise between North and South, with already divergent interests.
The capital's grid plan, interspersed with large prestigious diagonals, was designed by the French architect Pierre Charles L'Enfant. At the center of all things: the enormous Capitol, crushed by its dome. This is where, since 1800, the House of Representatives, to the 435 members elected for two years (in proportion to the population) and the Senate, to the 100 recruits elected for six years (two for each of the 50 American states).
Everyone is welcome to explore the premises. Given the crowds, it is better to book (www.visitthecapitol.gov). Not that the guided tour is unforgettable: run at a run, headphones on, it allows you to cross the crypt (Salle des pas perdus) and take a look at the first Supreme Court, before detailing the large canvases sublimating the American history of rotunda, where Washington appears almost deified. Last stop: on Hall of Statues, representing the different states. There are many figures there draped in their dignity, but also an Indian chief, a Hawaiian king and an astronaut!
To see more, you have to show white paw: passport required and new security check. It is at this price that one enters the galleries dominating the vast Senate chamber, watched over by busts of the most diverse personalities (Napoleon included!).
The green belt of the Washington Mall
When L'Enfant, at the request of George Washington, traced the future capital at the end of the 18th century, he imagined a wide artery inspired by the Champs-Élysées. The bickering which saw him out of the project, the War of 1812 (in which the British destroyed Washington) and the purse strings decided otherwise - until, at the beginning of the 20th century, his plans were unearthed and magnified. It was then that the enormous green flow of the Mall, running from the Capitol to the Potomac River in the west.
Everything that matters in Washington is here, or nearby. The gigantic Library of Congress, connected to the Capitol by an underground passage. The Washington Monument, to the colossal obelisk (169,30 m) erected in 1884 in memory of the first American president.
Then a litany of others commemorative monuments, more or less grandiloquent, celebrating in turn the military victims of the Second World War, the Korean War, then that of Vietnam - on which are inscribed, on an endless black granite wall, the names of 58 soldiers dead identified when it was built in 022 (the figure has since been reassessed to 1982).
At the end of the Mall, the hero of the country's unity, Lincoln, throne, seated, under a white marble temple in Greek style. Martin Luther King, unveiled by Barack Obama at the twilight of his presidency, is not far away. Still follow Roosevelt et Jefferson, also sanctified. North side of the Mall, finally, in the downtown area: the White House (no visit).
Smithsonian: the largest museum complex in the world
If the pedestrian alleys of the Mall invite to long walks or fervent jogging, the axis also serves as a backbone for most beautiful museums in the country.
It all started in 1846, with the big bequest of a wealthy British scientist, James Smithson, of whom we still do not really know what motivated him (he never set foot in the country!). More than a century and a half later, the Smithsonian Institute forms the world's largest complex of museums (19) and research centers (9). He manages 142 million objects, has his own magazine and allows himself the luxury of never charging a single entry!
The big red brick building named The Castle, the first Smithsonian headquarters (1855), bears witness to a more timid beginnings. Today, the institute has set up its visitor center there, where a few pieces illustrating the incredible diversity of its museums are exhibited. How to choose ? By not choosing. Each, in its own way, brings a stone to the edifice of American culture, thus offering a complementary view of the impulses and follies that have punctuated the country's history.
The ideal is to plan at least four or five days, even a week, by limiting oneself to one or two museums per day - their size not really allowing to digest more. Afterwards, to breathe: a good canvas, on summer Mondays, on the lawn of the Mall, during the Screen on the Green open-air sessions. Blanket and cooler (strongly) recommended.
The great museums of Washington
Let's start with the oldest (1911): the National Museum of Natural History, darling of families. While waiting for the return in spring 2019 of his dinosaur smala, we find all the animals of creation (very well) stuffed, their skeleton doubles upstairs, screens simulating our face in Neanderthal.
Another major attraction of the museum: an incredible collection of minerals and precious stones - including a 2,55 kg nugget, an 858 carat emerald and the largest blue diamond in the world (the Hope), stolen from Louis XVI in 1792 ...
Half a century later, under the reign of Lyndon B. Johnson, the Smithsonian offered itself the National Museum of American History. No slow unfolding of the past here, but a thematic approach: development of means of transport (from the steam locomotive to the Batmobile), cooking, inventions, entrepreneurship ... On the 1st floor, around the sanctuary of the sacro- holy star-spangled banner of 1814, the exhibitions set out in search of the American in his diversity. In the 2nd, seriousness required: here, we speak of presidents, first ladies and wars.
1974 in the Hirschhorn Museum anchored the capital in the era of contemporary art. Two years later, as the Viking Lander probe brought back the first samples of Martian soil, the National Air & Space Museum was inaugurated for the bicentenary of the Revolution. A crazy museum (in partial renovation in the coming years), where we come across biplanes, rocket planes, probes and spacecraft, V2, Russian and American nuclear missiles!
When Washington celebrates diversity at the museum ...
In the 1980s, diversity began to prevail: next to the old Friar, the Smithsonian inaugurated the Sackler Gallery (Asian art) and, on the other side of the garden, the Museum of African Art. It was only the beginning ...
In 2004, the Amerindian heritage of the entire continent settled (finally!) In National Museum of the American Indian, in a riot of headdresses, adornments, jewelry and ornaments, cult and customary objects. However, it is not just a question of aesthetics: the treatment of Indians by Americans is also questioned. This is the merit of this country, monstrous in its hours, but which knows how to look itself in the face.
The latest of the great Smithsonian museums, inaugurated in 2016 by Barack Obama, the National Museum of African American History and Culture does not offer more concessions to the past. Slavery and segregation, meticulously dissected, take center stage there, leading in procession to the coffin of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old kid lynched in Mississippi in 1955, to the point of being unrecognizable - an event that helped launch the campaign for the defense of civil rights.
All shame drunk (France, we learn, is responsible for 18% of the slave trade), we climb upstairs to admire the trumpet of Louis Armstrong and the red Cadillac of Chuck Berry. Lighter. By the way, don't forget to book: there are often several weeks of waiting to get a ticket!
... and the diversity of museums ...
Outside the Smithsonian, those who still have an ounce of energy will face the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, extremely well designed (silence is required); the complete catalog of European and American art of the inexhaustible National Gallery of Art ; the tails of National Archives to view the original Declaration of Independence; and the celebration of press freedom at Newseum, sponsored by USA Today.
More controversial, the brand new Museum of the Bible, financed by an evangelical billionaire, is divided into two a priori irreconcilable universes: the mind and the heart. First a didactic floor seriously exploring the history of the Holy Scriptures, collection of parchments and Bibles in support (the authenticity of some is debated ...). Then, on the lower floor, side by side, a Christian animated film, a cardboard village of Judea, extras included, and a delirious show brushing the main episodes of the Old Testament with sound animations and visuals, holograms and tearful sketches!
More fun: the gadgets of Spy museum, the failed (and some successful) portraits of American personalities at National Portrait Museum, the greenbacks of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, a glance at Pentagon (on reservation), or opium pipes and crack house from museum of Drug Enforcement Agency... Fortunately, the Menstruation Museum, opened by a weirdo in the basement of his Maryland shack, in a remote suburb, has been closed for a while. One less to visit.
Paddle, Ghost Hunting & Bras in Washington DC
After these excess air conditioning, it is useful to breathe a little. On the Mall. At zoo (also dependent on the Smithsonian). At Arlington National Cemetery. Or, closer, in the shaded brick streets of the old quarter of Georgetown, hipster district par excellence, packed with restaurants, trendy clubs and chic boutiques. In summer, you can rent a canoe, kayak or paddle board to sail on the Potomac or the C&O Canal.
But what else to do? A picnic plane spotting at the park Gravelly point, spread out in the center of the runways of Ronald Reagan Airport? Head to Delaware Avenue (# 700) to see the multicolored church transformed into space art ? Treat yourself to an aerobatic session at the Trapeze School ? Safer: a skating session at the Wharf or on the romantic ice rink pool National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. Only downside: you have to wait for winter.
A ghost hunt, then? The ghost tours lead up and down the narrow flight of steps from The Exorcist, then to Tragedy Square (Lafayette Park, his real name), where theOctagon, the most haunted house in town.
More alternative: a round Palisades Park, on the wooded shores of the Potomac, where the Blair Witch Project reaffirms ordinary madness in its own way: there, in an even more gloomy wood in winter, frightening mobiles hang, voodoo dolls and nightmare catchers (to change dream catchers). The ladies are requested to come with their bras to make an offering to the branches of the Bra tree.
Find all the tips, addresses and practical information in the Routard United States, North-East.
Consult our Washington online guide
How to get there ?
United Airlines and Air France operate a direct daily flight between Paris-CDG and Washington Dulles (with call rates under € 500 round trip) at noon. Find your plane ticket.
When to go
At the confluence of temperate oceanic and subtropical climate zones, Washington experiences invariably hot and muggy summers (27 ° C and 66% humidity on average) and cool to cold winters (3 ° C on average). Snowfall is generally quite light, although a few storms sometimes cover the city under a large layer of powder. In fact, it is better to come in spring or fall, the most pleasant seasons!
How to get around?
If Washington is extensive, most of the centers of interest are located near downtown and the Mall, which can be explored on foot or by bike (self-service). For the rest, there are 6 metro lines, practical although the stations are quite far from each other and frequent work (especially in summer). It is accessed with a rechargeable magnetic card. Also very useful: the DC Circulator, a bus whose 6 lines serve all the important tourist sites of the city (red line around the Mall, green to the zoo, etc.). We strongly advise against renting a car: impractical and exorbitant parking lots!
Or sleep ?
When traveling to the major cities of the Northeastern United States, accommodation is a major expense. Washington is no exception to the rule - quite the contrary!
Fortunately for those on a budget, there are a few good hostels here, such as the High Road Hostel DC, Hostelling International Washington DC or the DC Lofty. More out of the way, but very good value for money: the International Guest House, run by… Mennonites! On the same principle, but in the hands of the Quakers: William Penn House. There is also a very pleasant campsite, in the middle of nature, at Greenbelt Park, managed by the National Park Service, but there it is clearly preferable to have a car (green line of the metro at approximately… 3 km).
Those looking for more comfort will be spoiled for choice. While you can't count on finding motels in the city itself, the chains are well established, with prices ranging from $ 120 to $ 250 per double.
For this price, you may prefer to stay in one of the city's B & B's, most of which are small (1-2 rooms) and grouped together in a single association centralizing all reservations. Impossible to contact them directly! Otherwise, there is the Adams Inn, quite low-key, the American Guest House, in the pleasant district of Kalorama, or the Akwaaba, chicos even if all the rooms are not the same.
Where to eat ?
We will hardly surprise you by telling you that you will be spoiled for choice! A multiethnic city, Washington is full of addresses of all kinds, ranging from small Ethiopian, Greek or Indian restaurants (especially in the Adams Morgan district) to large historic breweries in the center (like the Old Ebbitt Grill just a stone's throw from the White House ) or made to look like it (the excellent Ted's Bulletin for example, very retro Art Deco, on 14th Street).
At noon, you can eat without (too much) breaking the bank in a multitude of small local chains with predominantly health: Sweetgreen, ChoptSalad, Beefsteak (especially vegetarian!), Cava, Protein Bar ...
Luxury burger chains (like Shake Shack or Five Guys) are also very present, and there are pizzas on every street corner - we like & pizza, where we compose our own pizza (oval), cooked in 1 minute flat before our eyes.
In the corner of the Mall and museums, on the other hand, the choice is extremely limited: we fall back on the countless food trucks lined up along the sidewalks on Constitution Avenue, Independence Avenue or 14th Street. Be careful with hygiene and prices, which are not always very clear (confirm before!).
And for fun, if you hang out in the corner of U Street (many bars): Ben's Chili Bowl, founded in 1958, between boxes, neon lights and old formica counter.
www.washington.org The Washington Tourism Site
www.potomacriverboatco.com And why not reach the pretty Georgetown district and the old town of Alexandria by boat via the Potomac?
www.freetoursbyfoot.com/washington-dc-tours Free city tours
www.washingtonwalks.com Guided tours (for a fee) on foot or by bus
www.trolleytours.com/washington-dc Guided tours (paying) by trolley according to the hop on hop off system (loop circuit of 25 stops)
, 384 pages, € 35